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John Mitford

1782 - 1831

John Mitford was one of a host of tragic characters who wrote during the Romantic Period. The brief account of his life in the Dictionary of National Biography, reads not unlike Samuel Johnson's account of Richard Savage, published in 1744, that defined the tragic literary bohemian of the Augustan age. Indeed, the circumstances of birth, the propensity to drink, the despair of madness, and their untimely deaths link these two writers within the roll call of literary depressives. Unfortunately for Mitford, he did not have his own Johnson to eulogize him and therefore preserve his name, if not his work, in the English literary canon. The sketch below is developed from the entry in the 1894 edition of the DNB. Much of what is contained in the DNB biography might very well be mere hearsay, as it is itself developed from an obituary that appeared in 'The Gentleman's Magazine'. It seems that as Mitford became increasingly destitute - indeed, during the entire time of his literary career - his doings were much harder to attribute. Therefore, some of what is reported here (and elsewhere) about his life and literary activities may very well be questionable.

Mitford was born at Newton Red House and baptized in the parish of Mitford on January 22, 1782. He was a member of the Mitford family whose castle ruins still exist in Northumberland. His cousin, Lord Redesdale, secured him an appointment in the navy in 1795, where he began his service upon the Victory as a midshipman. He was present at the battle of Toulon on July 13, 1795. In 1796, he served on the Zealous under Captain Samuel Hood, upon which he fought at the attack on Santa Cruz in July 1797 and at the battle of the Nile at the beginning of August 1798. Later, he is said to have been in the service of Nelson. If so, then these experiences lend credence to his authorship of "The Adventures of a Post Captain," which has been attributed to an "Alfred Thornton." He continued in the service, serving as Captain on a revenue cutter off the coast of Ireland from 1804 to 1806. Between 1809 and 1811 he was the master of the Philomel brig in the Mediterranean.

In September 1811, Mitford returned to England to take up a post secured for him in the civil service by Viscountess Perceval, a friend to his cousin Lady Redesdale. This proved to be a misstep, since the post was not reserved for Mitford after all. Nevertheless, he began working for the Viscountess by producing letters and articles in support of Caroline, the estranged Princess of Wales, whose cause the Viscountess had taken up. During this employment, Mitford had a mental breakdown and was placed in Mr. Warburton's private asylum in Hoxton, where he was kept between May 1812 and March 1813. He later wrote an exposé on the horrible conditions therein; the volume still exists in many library collections. His release was secured by Lady Perceval, but she tried to break off the connection when she determined that the writing he had done for her was libelous and therefore liable to get her into serious trouble. Consequently, she brought action against Mitford for his having sworn that the libelous articles were actually authored by her. When it was shown that he had, in fact, written under her strict instruction, Mitford was acquitted of the charge. His version of the scandal was widely published and can also be found in many library collections.

Following these events, Mitford was officially discharged from the Navy as insane. He then, as the DNB puts it, "took to journalism and strong drink." The combination of writing and drinking were to fuel Mitford's literary career. From his bibliography, we can see that he wrote a number of works on the naval life in addition to the scandal tracts mentioned above: 'Poems of a British Sailor', 'Johnny Newcome in the Navy', and 'The Adventures of a Post Captain'. He also wrote a follow-up volume about another Johnny Newcome character, 'My Cousin in the Army', or, 'Johnny Newcome on the Peace Establishment', published in 1822.

Mitford is also credited with having written "An Account of Lord Byron's Residence in the Island of Mitylene" which was attached to the first edition of John Polidori's The Vampyre. Indeed, it was Mitford's faked account which led to the controversy surrounding Byron's alleged authorship of the piece. Polidori soon came forward and declared that he had authored the novel on a suggestion made by Lord Byron during that summer with the Shelleys at Lake Geneva, but despite Polidori's claims, the publisher did not recant Mitford's account. Given this, it is also likely that Mitford wrote the parody 'Don Juan'…, which is also attributed to Alfred Thornton.

Most of Mitford's writing was published by J. Johnston, Cheapside, and his associates. The accounts of Mitford suggest that Johnston kept a tight reign on Mitford in order to secure his work, otherwise Mitford would go on a bender and nothing would get done. While working for Johnston, Mitford also edited the satiric periodical, 'The New Bon Ton Magazine', which ran from October 1818 to April 1821. According to Alvin Sullivan's British Literary Magazines, this was one of the leading satirical periodicals of the period, a kind of precursor to Punch. What's most intriguing is that the Bon Ton attacked Byron's 'Don Juan' with moral indignation in its third volume. This lends more credence to the "Alfred Thornton" Don Juan…being a Mitford production. When he died, Mitford was at work on another periodical called the Quizzical Gazette.

During the 1820s, Mitford's dissipation grew worse. The DNB biographer states that Mitford "lost the power to distinguish truth from falsehood," which suggests that his earlier bout of madness had returned, and indeed drove his literary efforts. He was ragged and filthy when he died in 1831, though he still etched out a meager living from his writing until the very end. He left a wife and family, and these were provided for through a stipend from Lord Redesdale.